Premise: When a series of alien ships arrive on earth, it’s up to a linguist to learn their language and find out what they came here for.
About: This was one of those half-assignment/half-spec type deals. Eric Heisserer adapted Ted Chiang’s short story. The project was considered low-priority. But when it came together, everyone realized the film’s flashy premise provided them with an opportunity to draw in a bigger audience. Paramount became the primary suitor, eventually picking it up after a stellar preview at Cannes, and it came out this weekend to a higher than expected box office of 24 million bucks. For perspective, a Marvel movie will cost 4 times as much and land in twice as many theaters. So this is a huge coup for Arrival. One of the hottest directors on the planet, Denis Villeneuve, directs Amy Adams, Jeremey Renner, and Forest “Rouge One” Whitaker.
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Details: 1 hour and 55 minutes
Coming out of Arrival, I had the same reaction half the country did after the election…
“What the fuck just happened?”
Arrival is a testament to exploring a big idea on an intimate scale. It’s a script that should be lauded for its commitment to deeper introspective storytelling. But it’s also a cautionary tale for screenwriters – both in how the system forces your hand and how time travel mechanics are the biggest minefield in screenwriting.
Arrival follows Dr. Louise Banks, one of the top linguists in the world. Louise recently lost her daughter to cancer and therefore drifts though life, allowing her professorial duties at the local college to distract her as much as possible.
Her life is violently interrupted when twelve alien ships that look like giant tear drops arrive, hovering over twelve of the biggest countries in the world. Just as Louise is taking this in, an army colonel named Weber shows up and tells her her services are required. They need to communicate with the aliens, and she’s the only one they believe who can do it.
Louise is paired up with Ian Donnelly, a scientist, and the two join a small team that go into the alien ship every 18 hours to try and develop a common language with the aliens so that they can communicate.
The process is slow-going, and they’re repeatedly getting pressure from the higher-ups to speed it along. The big dogs believe that the other countries are making faster progress, and word on the bike path is that the aliens might be here to offer us a weapon. In some sort of twisted game, whichever country wins the language war, they will receive the weapon, and, if they so please, have the rest of earth at their mercy.
It’s a classic tale of of the tortoise and the hare, as Louise wants to learn the language from the ground up in hopes of a comprehensive dialogue, whereas the other countries are learning a few key words quickly so they get the message faster, even if that means error-prone communication.
Who will win? And what is the weapon the aliens have at their disposal? That’s the million dollar intergalactic question, baby.
Arrival is an example of the sign of the times. No, I’m not talking about how aliens relate to our political reality or any such nonsense. I’m talking about how in the original story, China plans to take over the world.
Oh no, but we can’t portray China in a negative light! Like, literally, we’re not able to. China is in the process of investing money in all seven studios with the stipulation that they cannot be portrayed negatively in any of the movies their money funds.
So what we’re seeing is scripts like Arrival have to be rewritten. And the results are anything but ideal. Instead of the Chinese being bad guys like in the earlier draft, the Chinese are now heroes, bravely defending the planet by threatening the aliens.
This sets a ticking time bomb up for the final act, as Louise and Ian hurry to learn the last bits of the alien language in the hope that they can prevent this attack.
At first glance, it’s a subtle shift. The Chinese no longer want to harm us. They want to harm the aliens. But in terms of stakes, it’s everything. Our characters and the United States are no longer under direct threat. No matter how you dress it up, there’s less stake in this scenario than a chicken sandwich.
Sure, there’s still “connect-the-dots” stakes. If China attacks the aliens, the aliens may attack earth, and everyone dies. But this scenario isn’t as clear, and the connect-the-dots nature of it makes it less scary than if China was threatening the U.S. directly.
So how do you deal with this as a working screenwriter? You can’t. There are things you have no control over. Studios are going to ask you to change things you don’t want to change all the time. And all you can do is do your best.
What sucks about Arrival is that it compounds this decrease in stakes with a risky story choice – adding time-travel.
[major spoilers below]
While I will never say “Don’t use time travel” in your screenplay, I will heed you this warning: Time travel is the hardest thing to get right in storytelling.
It goes back to Terminator. As a singular movie, that film worked because it was so simple. You didn’t have to think much. But once a second Terminator appeared in the second movie, it got everyone thinking: “Wait a minute. If they fail, why can’t they just keep sending Terminators back, one after another until they succeed?” That’s the pitfall of time travel. It opens up so many fucking, “Well wait a minute…” questions.
And Arrival is no exception.
The “weapon” that the aliens give Louise? Is the ability to see the universe like them – without the constraints of time. So Louise has the power to see forwards and backwards into her entire life.
Okay, now here’s where things get tricky, so stay with me. The daughter she lost to cancer? That hasn’t happened yet. What Louise is remembering in the early part of the movie is the future, not the past.
That daughter she had, she had with Ian (her co-worker). Which begs the question, where is Ian in all these future memories? It turns out he left when Louise informed him that their daughter would eventually contract cancer.
We then go back to the end of the aliens’ visit, where a troubled Louise asks Ian that if he could live a happy life despite knowing something terrible was coming, would he change it? He says no, he’d still live that life. And that’s the end.
Okay so, let’s get this straight here. Louise is having memories of her dead future child when we start the movie because the aliens gave her the power to see time forwards and backwards, which goes into effect retroactively, giving her that power to see the future, essentially, right when she’s born.
So then how come she didn’t know the aliens were coming???
Apparently this ability to see the future is selective.
Also, where is Ian in these future memories if he’s the father? Oh right, he left. Because when Louise told him that their daughter would eventually get cancer, he was so mad that he deserted the fam.
Let’s think about that for a moment, shall we? You leave the woman you love and the daughter you love because you’re mad your wife told you she’s going to get cancer. Does that make sense to you? Wouldn’t you stay and fight and go to every doctor on the planet to find preventative measures to stop the cancer, especially since you already know which cancer it’s going to be?
A little more digging however, tells us the real reason Ian isn’t there. If Ian was there, we’d have known the “flash-backs” were actually “flash-forwards.” They needed Ian out of the picture to execute the sleight-of-hand. Hence the artificial reasoning for him leaving.
All of this is an elaborate way of saying: If you’re going to fuck with time travel, be prepared to take it on the chin. The more embedded time travel is in your plot, the more plot holes you’re going to have. Period. If you’re okay with that, go for it. But I promise you, they’ll be there.
Despite this frustrating issue, I still liked Arrival. I loved the realistic approach it took to the arrival. I loved the unique manner in which contact was explored (with language). On a filmmaking note, I thought the score was amazing. And I thought Villeneuve shot the movie in a mesmerizing manner.
There’s this flying tracking shot early on, where we helicopter into the base outside the ship, and we’re floating down and around the make-shift barracks, and the score is booming and the clouds are sliding off the nearby mountains and this majestic ship is silhouetted by the sun — that shot fucking sold me. The aliens could’ve communicated in farts and burps at that point and I still would’ve bought in.
So warts and all, this was quite the movie-going experience. Not to mention it’s a great discussion piece for screenwriters and filmmakers alike.
[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There is such a thing as too much subtlety, you know. Writers and directors who prefer subtlety are terrified of coming off too “on-the-nose.” In principle, I agree that on-the-nose is bad. But if you go to the other extreme, where you don’t give us anything, there’s a chance we might not catch what you’re trying to say. This love story between Louise and Ian is dealt with so subtlely, we don’t even know it’s happening. There’s no kissing, no touching, no compliments, no looks, not even a hint that they like each other. So when they get together at the end, it comes out of left field. It’s fine to be subtle. But you still have to give the audience SOMETHING to let them know what’s going on. Every payoff in your story must be set up on some level.
THE WINNER HAS BEEN ANNOUNCED BELOW
If you’re new to the Scriptshadow Tournament, here’s what’s happened so far. The first round went for 8 weeks, with you, the readers of the site, voting for the best script on each of those weeks. Those 8 winning scripts are now competing in the Quarterfinals. To spruce things up, we’ve added a wild-card entry to each Quarterfinal week. Wild-Cards were scripts that garnered a lot of votes on their respective week but fell short in the end. The best of those near-misses have been voted into the Quarterfinal round.
As a reminder, here’s how this works. Read as much of the three scripts as you can then vote in the comments section which script you think deserves to go into the semifinals. The voting will be done via an electoral process. Which means that different states and countries will account more heavily than other states and countries. I’m kidding by the way. With that said, please explain why you voted for the script that you did so that we know you’re a real voter and not a friend of the writer. All of this week’s entries have been rewritten since the last time you saw them, so I’ll leave it up to the writers if they want to summarize their changes in the comments section.
Voting closes at 10pm Pacific Time Sunday evening.
Good luck to all!
Title: Raised By Wolves
Writer: Paul Clarke
Logline: Raised in seclusion, a curious but naive teenage secret-agent discovers a sinister side to her work and must escape her handlers and flee into the world she fears to discover the truth.
Writer: Brian Kazmarck
Logline: As their ship is rapidly overrun by a malevolent alien intelligence determined to assimilate the entire crew, a biologist discovers a much darker secret she must expose to the world before they all die.
Title: Odysseus and His Boy
Logline: With only one night to act, two rival soldiers must sneak behind enemy lines to complete a last-ditch suicide mission that will finally put an end to a decade-long conflict.
Writer: Steffan DelPiano
WINNER OF QUARTERFINAL WEEK 1: “Odysseus and His Boy” by Steffan DelPiano. It’s Week 1 of the quarterfinals and we already have our first upset, with Wild-Card entry “Odysseus and His Boy” dominating the competition. Congratulations, Steffan. You’re in the semi-finals! I’ll be alerting this Friday’s entrants later today. Also want to congratulate Brian and Paul for a strong showing. Don’t get down on yourselves. The short script competition is right around the corner!
So I want to get into some advanced screenwriting stuff today, but before I do, I need to relay an encounter I just had with a screenwriter. A mutual friend introduced me as “Someone who could offer advice,” to the young gentleman and the writer immediately went into this long spiel about how hard it is to get into the industry and how no one wanted to read his scripts and when they did, they “didn’t get them” and something something “nepotism.” After this endless rant came to a close, I asked him how long he’d been writing screenplays. “A year and a half.” I internally groaned.
Let’s go back, shall we?
When I used to teach tennis, there were stages to a player’s development. First, they had to learn how to hit the primary shot – the forehand – correctly. I would take them through the shot slowly, physically guiding their arm through the motion. Then I would drop a ball and have them hit it, from which all form went out the window. And I’d have to re-focus them to do the correct swing regardless of the fact that there was now a ball involved.
Once they got this, I would move back a few feet and toss the ball to them. When they got good at that, I would move back further, tossing again. Eventually I would move to the other side of the net, and soon-after, I would be “feeding” them the ball from my racket. We’d do this for countless hours, countless lessons. And then you know what we’d do? We’d start over and do the same thing with the backhand.
And then I’d teach them how to serve. And then I’d teach them how to hit volleys. And then I’d teach them how to rally from the baseline. This would take months, a year. And you know what? We hadn’t even learned how to play the game yet. So I’d have to teach them that. And then I’d play with them. And then I’d have to teach them how to direct the ball. And then I’d have to teach them different spins on all the shots, variations in spins, and when and why you would want to use them. Then I’d have to teach them strategy. When to play consistently and when to go for the winner.
And even after I taught some of my better players this over the course of, say, two years, they’d still only be, if they were lucky, bottom-level city players. They weren’t even close to locally ranked. If I would’ve sent them into a tournament, they’d probably lose 6-1, 6-0 in the first round.
I want you to think about that for a second. My most dedicated players with a solid amount of talent couldn’t even get locally ranked after 2 years of playing. To give you some perspective on that, a local ranking is still considered being a “scrub” in tennis vernacular. It’s only when you get to the high local rankings in a major city that you’re considered “good.” And even then, you’re still ranked low regionally. And don’t even get me started on where you’re ranked nationally (you aren’t).
And even if you manage to somehow make it into the top 20 nationally, which is an AMAZING fucking achievement – these guys can fire a 130 mile an hour serve past you in their sleep – you’re probably ranked between 250-350 in the world, which means you’re making $40-50k a year, all of which you’re spending on travel so you can stay on the circuit.
What’s the lesson here?
Don’t play tennis.
But on a more serious note, here’s my point: mastering anything is hard. And there aren’t any shortcuts. Screenwriting may not be as physically demanding as tennis or basketball or even golf. But trust me, it requires the same amount of dedication. Because everybody’s trying to do it. And the only way to rise above others is to do it more.
The one thing I did see in tennis is that when a student dedicated 10 hours a week to practice, as opposed to 5, or 4, or 1, they got better a lot faster. And the guys who did get ranked? They worked more than anyone. They’d practice at least 14 hours a week and usually more. So by doing that one simple thing – writing more – you can improve your chances dramatically.
But there’s one thing I noticed from both my playing and teaching days and that was, at a certain point, every player would reach a ceiling. And only a select few would break through it into that “upper tier.” Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t always talent that got them there. Yes, talent played a part in it.
But some guys made it through that ceiling purely on heart. Because they couldn’t see any other option than breaking through and they would push as hard as they could for as long as they could until they made it. Still others just worked their fucking asses off. They outworked the system. If their competition practiced 30 hours a week, they’d practice 40.
All of this is a rather elaborate way of setting up today’s topic – advanced screenwriting. For those of you who have hit all the forehands (learning the 3-Act structure) and the backhands (you no longer write on-the-nose dialogue), and the serves (show don’t tell), and have actual confidence that you can put a cohesive and entertaining story together for 110 pages, but you still can’t seem to break through the ceiling, here are three tenets of advanced screenwriters you should be working towards.
The ability to make the complex simple – A screenplay can have complex ideas and complex characters. But, at its core, it should be simple. If there’s one mistake I keep seeing all the way up to the top ranks in screenwriting, it’s over-complication of the story. Screenwriters make things overly complex and, as a result, their story gets muddled. If a story is muddled for as little as 5 pages, a reader will mentally check out.
The reader must always know what’s going on. Even if you don’t want them to know what’s going on, they should know that they don’t know what’s going on only because you don’t want them to, not because you don’t know. A good example of a movie with complex ideas and a complex structure that strived and succeeded in making things simple was Inside Out. Despite dual storylines (in and out of Riley’s brain), and a lot of world-building, the plot boiled down to two SIMPLE adventures. Joy trying to get back to headquarters and Riley wanting to go back to Minnesota.
Failures in this arena would be films like Interstellar and The Accountant. I’m not saying these were bad films. But they were movies where the scripts got away from the writers due to overcomplicating the story. I mean Interstellar starts off being about saving earth and then becomes about what? The art of space travel? The Accountant is about an accountant who’s also an occasional hitman? What? And J.K. Simmons is trying to find him because why? He’s bored? And what is Ben Affleck even trying to do for this company he’s working for? And why is an autistic accountant a hitman again other than that’s a character an actor would want to play?
Take the extra time to simplify your most complex elements and make sure your core storyline (the engine that’s driving your characters towards their goal) is simple as shit.
A character who not only changes, but changes realistically – Intermediate screenwriters understand the value of a character who changes. Seeing a character become a better person over the course of their journey is one of the most moving and powerful components you can add to your screenplay.
But where all the intermediates get stuck is that they change their character in a Screenwriting 101 manner. That means that the character changes, but it doesn’t feel realistic. They only change because the writer needs them to change to complete the arc, not because, if this were real life, the character would really change.
That’s the key phrase you want to implant in your head – “if this were real life.” Would your character really change in this moment? Or are they just changing because it’s the end of the story and your screenwriting teacher told you this is when the change would happen?
If the change doesn’t feel realistic, the solution may be to add character-change “checkpoints” throughout the script. These are moments where your character is being tested on their limiting belief/flaw that, through their actions, show they’re not ready to accept the change yet. If we see your character being tested repeatedly, we’re more likely to believe that, on that final test, they’ll succumb to change.
A good example of this would be Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Turing is arrogant and unreceptive to help, preferring to do things his way and alone. It’s only through repeated opportunities (checkpoints) to bond with and trust his team that he eventually realizes he needs their help to solve the problem. And so he changes.
Thematic consistency – Thematic consistency is the act of making sure everything in your script comes together and operates on the same wavelength. I read too many scripts where the sum is not equal to the parts. Each choice is isolated, an idea that works in its own little bubble, but does not coexist with the other choices harmoniously. A script is like one big thesis statement. Every portion of it should support the operating thesis.
If you were writing a movie about racism, you don’t have your fourth most important character be a postal worker who’s trying to get his engineering degree. What does that have to do with racism? It’d be smarter to make him, say, a black cop who works in an all-white precinct. This way, you can continue to explore the “thesis” of your story through another avenue.
This doesn’t mean you have to be on-the-nose about it. You can explore it through irony as well. For example, in Bad Moms, one of the characters is a really good honest dad. That contrast of pitting a genuinely good father against crazy rule-breaking moms allows you to explore the theme, just from the opposite side. Had that dad been, say, a blind professor with Tourette Syndrome, you would’ve gotten some laughs, but the lack of thematic consistency would’ve confused the audience.
So there ya go, guys. Keep in mind these are just three tenets. There are a ton of other things that make up “advanced screenwriting” which I’ll be bringing up over the coming weeks. But I just wanted you guys to have some clarity on what you’re aspiring to. Feel free to share your advanced screenwriting tips in the comments!
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR FOREHAND: Play tennis? Here’s a tip. When you bring your racket back to hit your forehand, don’t have a death grip. Loosen the grip so you can feel the weight of the racket in your hand. Now let gravity start the racket drop (instead of pulling the racket down artificially) and use the momentum of that drop to accelerate out through the ball. With a looser grip, it’s essential that you hit the ball right in the middle of the strings, or else the racket will twist in your hand. So watch the ball!
Is Pox Americana the next Revenant?
Premise: After a town of Americans are slaughtered by Indians, a group of Indian assassins are put together to enact revenge. But not everything goes according to plan once they accomplish their mission.
About: Frank John Hughes, who had parts in such films as Catch Me If You Can and shows like Band of Brothers and The Sopranos, is one of the new guard of actors changing their fortunes by writing screenplays. We saw what it did for Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water) and if someone’s brave enough to make Pox Ameircana, which was featured on the 2013 Black List, it should do good things for Hughes as well.
Writer: Frank John Hughes
Details: 103 pages
One of the most eye-opening books I’ve read was “Empire of the Summer Moon,” a non-fiction account by S.C. Gwynne that tells us what the American frontier was really like back in the 1800s.
I’d grown up in a P.C. culture that informed me that Americans were the savages. That we ruthlessly wiped out the Native Americans as if spraying for bugs in our basement.
“Empire” taught me that while that was true in some cases, it wasn’t when it came to the more ruthless Indian tribes – the Navajo, the Apache, and the Comanche. The book goes into horrifying detail about what those tribes would do when they captured whites, specifically the women, children, and babies. You read that book and you’ll never be able to get some of those images out of your head for as long as you live.
I’m assuming that book at least partly inspired Hughes. Heck, before we even get to a slugline, we’re given a warning by the author of how graphic things are about to get. And to turn back now if you’re squeamish.
That’s no false teaser. Hughes delivers on that promise immediately, with an intense POV scene of an Indian raid. We’re talking people being hacked to death right before our eyes. We’re talking a giant rock being smashed into our – yes OUR – face, ending our life.
If there’s any truth to the old screenwriting axiom, “Your first 10 pages should yank the reader in,” well, consider this a proper yanking.
This sets up a revenge tale that isn’t exactly a revenge tale. Let me explain. This slaughter so infuriated president of the United States, James Buchanan, that he put together a crack team of Indian hunters to kill famed Navajo chief, Babazorka.
There’s only one problem. It was the Apaches who slaughtered the Americans, not the Navajo. But hey, there was no internet back then and since perception is reality, and because Buchanan wanted Babazorka dead anyway, he realized he could kill two birds with one stone. Get rid of an agitator while simultaneously easing the American people’s fear. Kind of a Sadaam Hussein deal, if you’re looking for an analogy.
So our group, led by “one mean son-of-a-bitch” Major Solomon Trigwell, galloped into Navajo territory, found Babazorka’s village, and killed Babazorka and everyone else. They’re ready to celebrate when they accidentally stumble upon Babazorka’s war chest, which has been built up over 50 years.
We’re talking gold, jewels, diamonds. All sorts of shiny shit.
The men start looking around at each other, realizing that if they head off in any direction other than back home, where they’d have to report this find, they could be rich for the rest of their lives. Ahh, greed. It makes everything so much more interesting.
On the night they’re ready to head out, though, an unending wave of arrows come shooting down at them. Out there in the darkness are more Navajo. Could be dozens. Could be hundreds. The men send their scout out to call for reinforcements, but the question is, will they last that long? Whoever’s out there doesn’t want them to leave alive.
I was going to use this script to discuss pure unbridled violence in writing – the kind that shocks you so relentlessly, it alone becomes the driving force behind your interest.
But I found the unique structural setup of the script to be a far more interesting topic. You see, in most screenplays, you lay out a goal and you see if your characters achieve it, which typically comes down to a third act climax, where, let’s face it, our hero usually wins.
In Finding Dory, Dory is trying to find her parents. In Deadpool, Deadpool is trying to kill the man who tortured him. In Suicide Squad, they’re trying to kill a witch or something. All of the objectives in these films are handled in their final act.
However, every so often, I read a script where the hero achieves his goal in the middle of the script. That’s what happens here. The group sets out to kill Babazorka (what a great name, by the way), and does so right at the midpoint.
This choice can be positive in that we’re asking, “Ooh, what the hell is going to happen now?” But it can be negative in that the writer, basically, has to come up with a whole new storyline. Either you create a new goal, a new problem, or a new mystery. And that’s no easy feat. Remember, the whole reason we showed up in the first place was because of the initial goal. That was your movie’s hook. So how do you entertain us now that that’s gone?
Pox Americana’s new goal is a solid one: ESCAPE. But I love that Hughes doesn’t stop there. He adds a couple of wrinkles. This war chest, which creates greed, and a sickness, which creates uncertainty.
When in doubt, go simple, and that’s what Hughes has done here. Where writers make mistakes is when they overcomplicate things. They say, “We no longer have a goal,” so what if we give each of my characters a subplot and they’re each trying to figure out some aspect of their life, and one guy’s got to do this and that guy’s got to do that. And soon they’re lost within a matrix of character motivations.
Hughes keeps it simple: ESCAPE. Then he throws in a couple of obstacles. A war chest and a disease.
If you want to practice this setup yourselves, imagine you’re writing Taken. However, instead of Liam Neeson rescuing his daughter at the end, he rescues her at the midpoint. As the writer, what’s your “second movie” for the second half of that script? I’d be interested to hear your ideas in the comments.
My only issue with Pox Americana was that they focused more on the disease in the final act than the greed. I found the greed to be the more compelling element. Yeah yeah, I know. It’s called “Pox Americana.” But it wouldn’t be hard to change that title. You should always follow the most interesting storyline, even if it means a title change.
Pox Americana is violent and dark (many of our “heroes” are bad dudes) and therefore not for everyone. But if some brave young filmmaker wants to make their version of The Revenant, this is the script you want to be looking at.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: “2 for 1 Structure” – 2 for 1 Structure is when you end the original story goal by the midpoint, then add a new story for the second half of your script. In this way, you’re basically writing 2 movies. The advantage of doing so is that your story stays fresh. If you wait until the very end of your script to solve the goal, you risk the audience becoming bored with the drawn-out nature of the hero’s objective. With a 2-for-1, you avoid that. Just know that 2-for-1’s have their own set of challenges. You have to come up with a second storyline that’s equal to, or preferably more interesting, than the first. That’s not easy to accomplish.
Premise: (from Black List) With America’s first viable independent presidential candidate poised for victory, an idealistic young journalist uncovers a conspiracy, which places the fate of the election, and the country, in his hands.
About: The Independent made the semifinals of the Nicholl Competition in 2013 before later finishing high on the 2013 Black List. Parter is new on the scene. This is his breakthrough screenplay.
Writer: Evan Parter
Details: 114 pages
Guess what day it is??
It’s ellllllllection day!!!
It’s time to vote for one of these two wonderful fault-free candidates we’ve decided are the best options to represent our country. And what better way to fire up those voting fingers than to review a political script?? Cause we all know how much I love politics. I talk about it all the time on Scriptshadow. Clintons, Bushes, Obamas. Sometimes this blog is so political, I might as well be blogging atop that big spire-like thing in Washington.
In all seriousness, I know very little bout politics, starting with what that spire-thing in Washington is named. In fact, I just learned a few months ago the purpose of voting for the Independent. I always used to wonder, “Why do people vote for this guy if nobody knows who he is?” But now I’ve learned that voting for the independent candidate isn’t a vote for them. It’s a vote against the system. You’re making, like, a statement with your vote that you don’t like America or something.
Might that be what The Independent is about? No idea. But who cares! I get to review a political script today. YAHOOOOOOO!!!!
Last year Nate Sterling wrote a book that sold 40 million copies and shot in him into the likability stratosphere. Sterling has used that buzz, as well as his innate charm, to climb the polls and become the favorite to win the United States presidency. The catch?
Nate is an independent candidate.
The United States has never had an independent president. So this is pretty unpresidented (heh heh – joke).
Across town, 28 year-old Eli Brooks isn’t exactly moving mountains like Sterling. But he’s an up-and-coming star at the Washington Tribune, the only paper in town that hasn’t succumbed to the evil internet news machine.
The chief editor at the paper implores his writers to hit hard and hit big. It’s the only way they can keep killing trees. And Eli’s got a story that’s going to knock out a rain forest. Eli believes that Republican presidential candidate and Sterling’s main rival, Roger Turnball, is siphoning money out of the state’s lottery coffers to pay for his campaign.
Eli lassos senior editor and mentor, Nate Sterling, into his conspiracy theory, and the two set out to prove Turball is a nasty dude. But just when the story’s coming together, they’re hit with a bombshell that will throw everything everybody thought they knew about Sterling on its head. The question is: Can they report it? And what will happen to them if they do?
This was so not a Carson script.
It had politics, politics, and… more politics! Had I paid more attention to the logline, I probably would’ve realized that.
Regardless of my personal feelings about politics, here’s my big issue with The Independent: It ignored its strange attractor.
Remember guys, your first order of business is to identify the strange attractor in your story. What is it that you’re bringing to the table that’s never been brought to the table before? I’d never seen the matrix before The Matrix. I’d never read a movie about a soldier who refused to use a gun before Hacksaw Ridge. I’d never seen a movie about magicians who pulled off bank heists before Now Your See Me.
However, that’s only THE FIRST PART of the equation.
The next part is that you must EXPLOIT THAT ATTRACTOR. In other words, you must show the soldier not using his weapon. You must show fighting that defies physics. You must show people using magic to steal money.
In The Independent, the independent candidate is your strange attractor. It’s what makes your movie unique. Yet there is nothing in here that exploits that. In fact, had you turned Nate Sterling into a Democrat, absolutely nothing about this script changes.
That’s when you know you’re not exploiting your concept. When you can change the attractor and nothing else in your script needs to be rewritten.
This script is more about a journalist trying to prove a presidential candidate is corrupt. I don’t know what that has to do with independent presidential candidates. And, quite frankly, that bummed me out. Because I don’t know much about the independent sector, and I was hoping that by the end of this script, I would know a lot.
Even if that wasn’t a problem for you, I was baffled by the fact that this script is titled “The Independent,” and yet 90% of the movie focuses on a journalist. Why aren’t we focusing on the most interesting part of your concept?
It just seemed odd to me.
As for the rest of the script, it was a mixed bag. I found the dialogue to be great when it was quick and punchy (“Listen up, buddy. Only eyes on that story are the ones you’re dotting.”), and insufferable when the characters couldn’t shut up (“There’s many wonderful things about a choir. Intimate friends, tight community, beautiful music. But, if you only sing in one choir your whole life, you’re only listening to one preacher… you’re only meeting one God.”).
There were so many lines like that last one, where characters would talk talk talk then summarize their thoughts with a famous quote or philosophical life lesson, that I felt like I was stuck in a Princeton Lecture Hall during some kind of Pretentiousness Competition.
That’s where this script lost itself, in its middle act. The characters couldn’t shut up, we the reader got bored, and both sides forgot what the movie was about.
The Independent almost saves itself with a wowzer of a late-story twist, but a lot of the impact of that twist came simply because I was bored. It was like, “Oh! Finally! Something’s happened!”
The Independent needs a lot of work. For starters, it needs to include its subject, Nate Sterling, more. It needs an investigation that’s more exciting than a corrupt lottery board. It needs to better explore its one interesting dynamic (spoilers) – that Eli’s fiancé works for the secretly corrupt Sterling. More time with her and more time with all three of them would be nice. And it needs to stop indulging in these endless 8-10 line pretentious dialogue exchanges that are more about sounding smart than pushing the story forward.
If The Independent can do all those things, maybe it makes it through the primaries.
Good luck to your candidate, everybody!
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: One of the more common mistakes I see with new writers is dialogue that’s written to make the writer look good rather than to serve the story. The Independent is full of characters who talk forever but don’t actually say anything. It’s okay for a character to ramble on about something every once in awhile, but remember, even in the talkiest of movies, it’s more important to show than tell. And it’s more important to keep the story moving than listen to yourself talk.